Feeding frenzy

We’re currently on a little side trip from Santiago at the seaside city of Valparaíso, an hour or two from Chile’s capital. It’s our last night here already – and also my first with internet since we arrived and now that I’m on line I just have to share some photos.

We’re staying at a B&B outside of the city center. It’s a short walk to the metro, which runs parallel to the Bay of Valparaíso’s coastline and gets us into the city in no time. An unexpected benefit is that the metro stop is right by a fisherman’s market and the piers behind them.

Each day there, we’ve gotten to marvel over the spectacle of gulls, pelicans and sea lions hanging out and squabbling over the fish and crab scraps the fishermen toss them from time to time. It’s like our very own David Attenborough special in real life, up close and personal.

The sea lions are too massive to be believed. They are these great hulking monoliths of slick fur and flubbering flesh lumbering across the sand, flopping into worn out piles to sun themselves, baring teeth, bellowing like disgruntled wookies and charging each other over food. Everything changes once they hit the water, where they immediately transform into weightless, elegant creatures gliding effortlessly through the water.

The gulls in the photos might make it seem like the sea lions are not that big. Don’t be fooled. They are colossal. I mean both the sea lions and the sea gulls. The cacophony the birds create when bits of crab or fish are available to fight over is insane!

And the Peruvian pelicans are incredible. They waddle, pigeon-toed, around the pier with their chins tucked deferentially into their chests like they were insecure about asking for fish, but they become magnificent when they take to the air, swooping about pterodactyl-like on massive wings.

So here are some of my favorite photos, in no particular order…

Fishing boats with the pier in the back ground. If you look close, you can already see the sea lions on the beach under pier. 

Pelicans going for fish scraps

Sometimes the sea lions get pretty aggressive with each other. Made me really happy to be watching from the pier above. 

A sea lion dives for crab scraps 

Sea lion and gulls

Gull, pelicans in the background

Diving for scraps

A fisherman dumping crab scraps

And the chaos that ensues…

A tern checking out the action from above

“Back off!!!” I love the look on the one gull’s face

Jack pot!

Pelicans eyeing the action below

Pelican coming in for a landing 

Cormorant and sea lion

Coy pelican

A tern glides above as a sea lion floats below

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Navimag: after the hype

So here we are, in beautiful, rain-driven Castro, on the mystical island of Chiloé, on the other side of our Navimag journey.

There’s loads of things I want to write about, but after the last post I think it’s fair to do a quick debrief about our time on the Ferry.

After all the hype and psyching myself up about “the good, the bad and the ugly”, I think it’s fair to say that none of the extreme scenarios won out.

Our days on the Ferry were, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag, with the balance leaning towards the good.

Was it a miserable four days filled with vomit and regrets? Most definitely not! Was it a life changing experience? The answer is also no. Am I glad I did it? Sure!

I don’t know how soon I’d do it again, but I love what I got to see along the way, and it made me hungry to visit Patagonia again – by land – for a closer look some day.

Here’s an overview of my personal ugly, bad and good from our four days on the ferry.

The Ugly

Allegedly the cabins in the normal ship are a bit nicer (The Evangelista – currently out of commission waiting for a new drive shaft apparently).

We got to see the Evangelista when we arrived at Puerto Montt

Ours were ok. Simple but fine – but for a few (important) details, like the toilet seat not being entirely attached and my ultimate pet peeve: dirty bedding. The linens were ok, but the top sheet had questionable stains of the variety my slightly paranoid mind likes to run away with. My intellect was “certain” was just mud, but my inner five-year-old inevitably christened it “the poop blanket.” So there was that in my head the whole time to deal with.

Just SOME of the offending stains…

Our cabin

More serious on the ugly list though was taking in the reality of the truckloads of cows who were outside on the cargo deck, tightly packed and standing for the entirety of our journey. (Not to mention how ever long they had been and would be in that condition during the over-land portions of their journey). The patient, half resigned/half hopeful expressions on their faces – whether real or projected – were heart breaking to me.

The Bad

My Spanish skills!

I could just about have very basic conversations (provided things remained in the present tense only!) in Argentina with what I’d learned in the two week’s of class I had there. Chilean Spanish is a whole new kettle of fish though, and I’m really struggling with it.

I was the only person on board with next to no Spanish, and most people couldn’t speak any English at all, so I ended up feeling a bit out of the loop. I am positive that being able to interact more meaningfully – beyond being able to say “hello”, “thank you” and “excuse me” basically – would have made for a more interesting experience on board. Definitely feeling motivated to take some more classes at some point and get somewhat more comfortable with Spanish!

The Good

Patagonia, Patagonia, Patagonia! Our weather was mixed too, but we had enough luck to see some pretty awesome views – and some wild life! Check out the magic:

This is the view we had on Puerto Eden. (Love the recurring theme of awesome colorful houses since we’ve gotten to Chile!)

The Ferry docks here during the summer, but as it’s winter now, boats from the village came out to meet us to pick up supplies from the ship, and this is as close as we got. I would LOVE to come back and check this place out up close some day. From Wikipedia:

Villa Puerto Edén is a Chilean hamlet and minor port located in Wellington Island, in Natales commune, Última Esperanza Province, Magallanes Region. It is considered one of Chile’s most isolated inhabited places together with Easter Island and Villa Las Estrellas. The village is known for being the home of the last Kawéshkar people. Owing to the large tidewater glaciers caused by the region’s super-high precipitation, it is only accessible by sea, on the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt in the north, or Puerto Natales in the south. There is also a monthly boat from Caleta Tortel.

The population is 176 (2002 census). Owing to the extraordinarily humid climate the village has no roads, with only pedestrian boardwalks connecting the houses and shops. A weekly transport boat takes local fish and shellfish products (the latter mainly mussels) to markets.

And last but not least, some videos. The iPhone had a tough time reading the light, so forgive some overexposure and blurry moments in the first video.

Views from the first day: waterfalls, water fowl and keep an eye open for seals.

And this. Was. Just. Magic.

Seeing this was the icing on the cake for me. Was lucky enough to have the phone in hand as it happened. I didn’t even know that seals did that. I still get shivers down my spine watching it – soooo magic and just awesome.

Hello Puerto Natales

Since we’ll be spending the rest of the week here (unexpectedly), I thought I’d share a few snap shots of this little city of Puerto Natales.

Quick Natales facts:

It is the capital of its province, which is called Última Esperanza, which is Spanish for “Last Hope”, a name I find tremendously evocative and romantic.

About 20,000 people live here. A lot of businesses shut down during the winter season (i.e. now). Tourism is the big draw to Natales at this point in its history and people flock here in the spring and summer months to trek in the (amazing!!!) Torres del Paine National Park.

The town even has a brewery, and we approve of the place’s beer and food! 😉

Key points covered, here is a handful of visual impressions from around town, just to paint a bit of a picture. 🙂 As per usual, the photos are clickable for a closer view (may be worth clicking on the last image at least. 😉 ).

Loads of cute dogs hanging out around town. Am considering buying a big bag of dog treats to carry around with me cause I want to feed them all!

Love the colorful buildings!

Enjoying the sunshine

Snow, fence and light

All sorts of interesting water fowl!

Gull afloat above the water

Defunct boat

Love the colors along the waterside

And last but not least, flamingos and snowy mountains in the background. Because flamingos and snow go together like…. flamingos and snow…. Who knew!! 😀

Days without pictures: Ushuaia

We had a super winter adventure yesterday in the Torres del Paine national park. It was overcast but the weather held out and we got to see some beautiful things. (Post about that to come at a later date… 😉

We timed things right. Today it’s nasty out which is just perfect for us. Full license to have a lazy/admin type Sunday in our wonderfully cozy temporary home here in Puerto Natales. The snow and slush are coming down outside. The wood stove is clicking and creaking gently as the fire burns inside. There are plans afoot to cook a curry for dinner at home with the owners of the B&B. I’m a happy girl.

Some snaps from right now, here in Chile…

 

And in the mean time, there’s a chance to finally catch up on some blogging…

So leaving Chile for now to return to our last stop in Argentina, Ushuaia… We had a total of four days there. The first day was a recovery day. Although I thought I had factored in plenty of time to do everything we needed and wanted to fit in prior to our departure from Buenos Aires, inevitably there was too much to do and too little time – how does this ALWAYS happen?? – and our last days there were busy, busy, busy and of course we got the minimal amount of sleep on our last night. So Saturday, our first day in Ushuaia, was all about recovery – relaxing, getting organized and gathering energy for the next four days.

We’ve been traveling for ages now and I’ve learned that it’s good for me to take a break from photography from time to time. I’ve got more pictures than my laptop has space for anyhow, and it DOES change your experience of a place when your more focused on just being there, rather than being behind the lens.

So there are days that I leave the camera behind, and I am always happy when I do. But Ushuaia was different.

We only had four days there, I was head over heels in love with the place, and God was it beautiful. I wanted to photograph EVERYTHING. And in my defense, we have seen and done so much on this trip. Capturing images are a great way to jog your memory later on, to help bring you back to a place and an experience. And Ushuaia is definitely a place I want to remember clearly.

But I also wanted my camera to survive the visit, which means that it got left behind, much to my chagrin, during our winter sport outings.

So, here are some verbal snap shots from my days without pictures (supplemented with some of Roman’s pics – his camera is pocket-sized and therefore much more portable! :-))

Ushuaia winter wonderland number 1: dog sledding

We are picked up by our tour operator and drive out of the city. Any buildings disappear pretty quickly as soon as we reach the city limits, and the views outside the fogged windows are replaced by nature. Snowy woods, pristine mountains. I wrote earlier that Tierra del Fuego looks like a landscape out of a fantasy movie, and today I narrow things down: it feels like I am entering the eternal winter of Narnia.

We come to the lodge where the dogs and sleds are. Inside is piping hot, with wood fires blazing in every room. Next to one a grey cat is stretched on a couch, napping. We are out all day and I swear it hasn’t moved an inch when we come back later in the afternoon.

The crew is organizing the sled and us tourists; Roman and I get to meet the dogs. Siberian and Alaskan huskies. It was awesome to learn about them and they were soooo cuddly and sweet. Apparently they don’t get along so well with each other, and the sled teams have to be carefully arranged – pairs are made up of a male and female dog for example, and order is determined by personality – to ensure fights don’t break out.  But they are tremendously sweet and affectionate with humans, and we got down to petting them every chance we got. The team of the second sled was younger dogs – teen agers – and they acted the part, barking and howling, a lot of talking with not much to say – while our team sat around with quiet dignity in the snow, waiting to get going.

 

Thank you Roman for sharing your pics with me. 😉 The dogs had the most amazing eyes. A lot of them had two different colored eyes. Gorgeous!

The sledding was fun – except for when a dog stopped for a bathroom break. If you ever find yourself traveling by dog sled and you see a dog stop to drop a load, make sure you hold your breath when the sled starts moving again. Husky poo is potent and you don’t want to breath in a cloud of it, trust me on this.

What a sweet face!

We sled along into the woods until my feet and cheeks are just about frozen with the cold, and then it’s time for…

Ushuaia winter wonderland number 2: snow shoeing

I’ve snow shoed before once, with Roman’s mom and step-dad back in the Swiss mountains. That was an awesome experience, so I’m so excited to have the chance to try it again.

There’s a lot of standing around, trying to stamp feeling back in to my feet, as everyone in the group gets kitted up with shoes. Finally we are off, and at first I am underwhelmed as we move slowly through flat forest. Eventually, our quiet but kind guide turns off the flat path and we start to head up hill. It feels good to use my body. The blood starts to pump and I find a rhythm to my pace. My footsteps in the crisp snow are like a yeti systematically making his way through a lifetime supply of Captain Crunch cereal. Up, up, up we go through the hilly woods. I start to forget my frozen toes and notice little details.

The delicate tendrils of sage green moss on the trees. Naked, knobbly, symmetric branches forming vivid patterns above the snow. Small but hardy leaves on bushes, spikey and defiant. The color of the snow. It is thick, pristine and white, but where crevices form – fine cracks that run inches deep along the side of the path – there is a subtle glow of the most pure aquamarine, as if snow and cold were the birthplace of blue.

We come to a clearing and that magic moment happens, when the work of my body has warmed my blood and the heat zooms down to my toes all at once. I love this feeling and savor it as we take in the view that stretches for miles before us. The valley down below, the ranges of mountains reaching out in either direction behind it. Stunning views. This place really is magic.

Then it’s time to head back down. We return to the woods in the valley where a small wooden hut has a fire, hot cocoa and cake waiting for us. Cheeky birds, like sparrows but with vivid yellow breasts, sneak in through the cracks and jauntily land on the table, the cake, claiming it as their own. We laugh and watch them flit about, and take another round communing with the huskies outside before heading back to the lodge and returning to town. An awesome day!

I loved this collection of colorful lanterns back at the lodge. Roman kindly let me steal is camera… 🙂

Bats!!

We’ve been having an absolute ball here in Sydney. The weather’s continued to be lovely and we’ve been roving all over the city exploring and enjoying.

Today’s the first over cast day there’s been since we’ve arrived, so we’re using it as a good excuse for a quiet morning and chance to catch our breath, do a bit of admin and maybe get out a blog post or two.

I’ll get back to writing about China at some point, but for now, here is a quick post about one of the fun things we’ve experienced here so far.

There are loads of beautiful spots in Sydney but I think at this point my most favorite has got to be the Royal Botanic Gardens.

The Gardens is a massive green space that starts at one end just next door to the city’s famous harbor and opera house and finishes up well into its business district. It’s full of native and exotic plants, pristinely manicured lawns and local fauna. Visitors are encouraged to walk – or play, or nap – on the grass, and it’s a perfect place for a stroll to enjoy views of the water or the city skyline or the lovely nature.

We spent one whole afternoon hanging out there, enjoying all it has to offer. We’d thought we’d gotten to know most of the animals living there when we heard a racket coming from a group of trees across a lawn. Taking a closer look, we discovered a colony of what must have been about a thousand fruit bats, or flying foxes.

Our love of fruit bats was cemented early on in our time in Asia, so we were really excited to check out the five or six trees that were literally dripping with these massive flying mammals. Here are a few pics. Unfortunately the zoom on my camera isn’t that great so there aren’t any good close-ups.

Also, in case you ever wondered what hundreds of flying foxes sound when they hang out together, click here: (Bats) for a sound clip. Can’t decide if those are the throes of passion or of death! 🙂

 

Interlude from the Philippines: Sounds of Coral Bay

** Before I begin this post, let me make it clear that I am by no means an expert on lizards! **

At this point we’ve spent a lot of time in Asia, and I’ve discovered that the place basically has two kinds of geckos.

The first is the Little Geckos.

These guys show up basically any place that’s hot enough. They have cute inquisitive little faces and range in color from what I’d describe as flesh tone to dull greyish brown. They hang out anywhere and everywhere but especially around lighting fixtures at night where they ineffectually stalk bugs and occasionally bomb unsuspecting sleepers with little pellets of poo (ok, this happened to me only once in Thailand, but I’ve been paranoid ever since!). They make their little tsk-ing noises to each other and from time to time get into minor scuffles over bug-hunting territory.

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Then there’s the Big Geckos.

These are less common and more shy – therefore harder to spot. While we have on occasion seen, and more often heard, them throughout Southeast Asia, it seems they may have it tough going there.

Apparently they are used in traditional Chinese medicine and will fetch quite a price for anyone who manages to catch them. Indeed, I saw dozens of the things while we were in Hong Kong, dead, splayed and drying in rows in the sun on the sidewalks in front of medicine shops.

Coral Bay seems to be a safe haven for the little guys. No place else we’ve been on this entire trip have we’ve heard SO many of them. They get active at night and have a wonderful and distinct call that makes it clear why they’re called geckos. We have one who’s taken to hanging out on our porch. Here’s a picture, and click on the “Gecko” link below to listen to what he and his friends sound like. 🙂 (Apologies for the sound quality – or lack thereof; this was recorded with an iPhone)

Gecko

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Silk Road Tour days four and five

The first parts of our tour were so full and so spectacular, it felt like we’d already been traveling for a couple of weeks when we woke up that next morning, rather than only a few days. Our last night on the tour promised to be a good one though, so we wrenched ourselves out of bed and bundled ourselves and our gear into the VW one more time: We were heading to the desert!

The Taklamakan Desert, bounded at its northern and southern borders by two branches of the ancient Silk Road, is the second largest shifting sand desert. Located farther from the ocean than almost any other place on Earth, it is China’s largest and driest desert and was a hazardous place to travel for those brave souls traversing the Silk Road back in the day. (Thanks Wikipedia and eoearth.org)

From Wikipedia: “The name is probably an Uyghur borrowing of Arabic tark, “to leave alone/out/behind, relinquish, abandon” + makan, “place”. Another plausible explanation is that it is derived from Turki taqlar makan, which means “the place of ruins”. Either way, it’s all terribly romantic and intriguing!

But I think the poor Taklamakan got a raw deal. I’d already left my heart back in the mountainous landscape along the Karakorum highway. The weather there was over-cast and damp and our time was very limited; we couldn’t travel all that far into it at all. For me there was no way it could compete with the those massive, awe-inspiring mountains glimmering in that clean, crisp, sun-filled air. I think we’ll have to visit it again in more favorable conditions!

Still, spending the night camping in the desert was pretty cool, I loved getting a bit more familiar with camels – cute with attitude! – and we made a few fun stops on the way there and back. Here are some of the highlights from day four and five of the tour.

Tombs and furry friends

We made a stop at one point at a simple road-side farm. Yusef knew of some traditional Uighur tombs close by that he wanted to show us. Simple, long, clay tombs covered an entire hillside behind the farmstead. Yusef told us that Uighurs prefer to keep their final resting place simple, opting instead to spend money on decorating their earthly homes (as opposed to Tajiks, who apparently keep their homes simple but have elaborately decorated tombs).

Just as interesting to me was seeing the farm-house we had to walk around, made of the same sand-colored mud bricks. We also met a young, inquisitive donkey and its mother while poking around. Super cute! 🙂

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Scenes from Yarkand

We took a small detour to the city of Yarkand, where we stopped for lunch and visited the mausoleum of Ammanisahan, an Uighur queen who is renowned for collecting the “muqam” (more about muqam on Wikipedia). The mausoleum was lovely and peaceful, but what I really enjoyed was the sights of every day life around town.

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The bike seat covers that looked like mini-carpets were everywhere and I got such a kick out of them! Someone in Yarkand mixed things up though with the faux zebra skin! 😉

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Outside Altun Mosque

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Ironmonger/blacksmith shop in the old town

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Yarn for sale

Taklamakan nights

The endless sand dunes were cloaked under thick clouds when we arrived at the desert’s edge. I can only imagine how cool it must be when the skies are clear! We had a team of three camels and two camel drivers – two young men who are cotton farmers in the area, but who work the camel treks part-time for extra income. Abled and Iziz spoke only a bit of English, but with Yusef’s interpretation, we got to learn a bit about their lives and they about ours. They were soft-spoken but inquisitive and kind and it was lovely to get to know them at least a little bit.

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The night out on the dunes was cold but peaceful. I loved toasting myself by the fire in the otherwise pitch black night before it was time to turn in. We all woke early in the hopes of seeing a desert sunrise, but things were still overcast unfortunately. We had another surprise though. After breaking camp and heading back to town, Yusef let us know that Abled had invited us to stop by his home, which was nearby, for breakfast before we headed back to Kashgar.

Abled lives in a traditional Uighur farmhouse – simple but spacious and decorated with richly covered carpets everywhere. He invited us to make ourselves comfortable in the main room and served us tea and bread. We got to meet his father too, who was sweet and gracious.

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Our camel guide, Abled

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Bags of cotton inside Abled’s home

The main crop in the area seems to be cotton, which Abled also farms. We saw many massive trucks, full to bursting with the white, fluffy stuff, along the road to the desert and the next day, when it was time to return to Kashgar and for our whirlwind-intro-to-Xinjiang tour to come to an end…

Silk Road Tour day two: Part one

After our cold but amazing stay at Karakul Lake, it was time to hit the road again. We were heading to Tashkurgan, a small mountain town and another stop along the historical Silk Road. The Karakorum Highway had some more treats in store for us however before we would arrive there.

As with the first day, Yusef stopped the car any time there was something interesting to see. Just shortly after departing, we came across a vast pasture filled with grazing yaks. Our first official yak sighting!

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A baby yak. So fuzzy!!

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More of those massive yellow trucks thundering past the pasture

There is a lot of mining taking place in Xinjiang. Apparently the mountains contain gold, iron, brass and copper (source: Yusef). This was one of many mountains we passed along the way that bore the scars of mining.

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We stopped to take in the view of some amazing mountain glaciers in the far distance.

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Massive glaciers. Just amazing!

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Our car and a whole lot of nature – felt like we were the only humans for miles around!

Another beautiful scene from my car window.

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At one point we made a rest-room stop, and I encountered the most simple toilet I’ve come across yet on our big trip. Although clearly not simple enough since some earlier visitor failed to use it correctly (yes, that is what you think it is)…

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One wedding and a funeral

At one point we drove past a small village. Yusef noticed a large-ish number of cars parked in front of one house. He said something to Driver and suddenly we were near-off-roading it across a narrow, bumpy dirt path towards the gathering.

Yusef explained that this was a Tajik town and that he thought this might be a wedding. Tajik people, he told us, are either very friendly, or very crazy, so as long as this particular Tajiks were the former, we should be fine. But Roman and I had better wait in the car until he ascertained the situation. Hm. 😉

He hopped out and approached a stony-faced group of men. Roman and I began speculating if and how soon he might get punched. Soon he was hurrying back to the car. Half laughing, he hopped back into the passenger seat. “This is a funeral!” Well, I guess that explains the serious looking men. “But there is a wedding on the other side of town!,” he proudly announced. And off we drove across the bumpy track, to the other side of town where there was in fact a much larger, much more cheerful looking group of people assembled.

Roman and I felt awkward about gate crashing, but Yusef assured us, after asking around, that we were absolutely welcome. Indeed, the people we met were totally lovely. It turned out we were there on the first day of the festivities. The actual wedding and the real party was the next day and in the end we got invited to return and take part in the festivities. If only we had more time in Xinjiang! 🙂 It was awesome though to be able to see at least a little glimpse of the Tajik wedding ceremony.

I was able to join a big group of women in a yurt where sweets were being eaten. Yusef had told us we could take photos of anything and everything. I felt hesitant at first but then the women actually asked me to take pictures of them. I wasn’t allowed to leave the yurt until each and every one of them had been photographed and each snap had been thoroughly laughed over. 🙂 Here are just a couple of the photos I took. (The women look relatively serious, but they would burst into giggles once the photo had been taken. 🙂 )

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Afterwards, Yusef led us to a yard behind the buildings where a sheep and a goat were being prepared for the wedding feast. We had missed the slaughter (thank God) but were in time to watch the butchery. Steam was still rising from the bodies; the eyes of the heads (still attached), were still open. With quick efficiency the men removed organs, cut bone away from bone. I was amazed at the astounding brevity in which a living, breathing creature is transformed, reduced to composite parts organized by their usefulness to man.

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We got to meet the bride; she was sweet but I think probably too busy taking in the whole wedding thing to interact with us much. The groom was arriving the next day for the ceremony.

Outside, we watched the crowd that had gathered to witness the gift giving. Traditional gifts to newlyweds are bedding. Lots and lots of bedding – blankets, mats, cushions – to flesh out the new home/yurt. Seems like this couple would have enough to set up 50 yurts!

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Gifts piled high inside one of the houses

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A few of the women watching the gift giving

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Some women take a break from the crowd. Take a look at the background – this little village was really in the middle of no where! So awesome that we got to visit it!

Cute fest!

For as long as I’ve known me I’ve been a sucker for stationery so it’s no wonder that I’ve gone gaga for the school supply store just down the street from our dorm here in Yangshuo. Just for the record, I love Asian writing supplies!!!

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Fruit, kitties and flowers!

I’m thrilled that we are taking classes so I have had a legitimate excuse to buy a bunch of new notebooks. 😀 Check out how cute these all are! I wish the store had one of those punch cards – buy 10 notebooks and your next notebook is free! I’d already be halfway to my freebie!

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Kitty is working out SO hard, victory will surely be his!!

(On a side note, we’ve already become regulars at a few places. Aside from the stationery shop, the general store on the same street (where they must know there’s a Chinese school close by cause they are fantastic at speaking slowly and clearly when they tell me the price of things) and the fruit stand with the cute grey and white kitten see us nearly every day. I’m loving the feeling of having a “neighborhood”. Yangshuo’s been really friendly to us and it’s so sweet to have folks wave and smile when we’re out and about because they already know us.)

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Perfect advice for me on this awesome calendar!

Back to notebooks – I’ll no doubt be back in the shop a few more times before we leave Yangshuo and am happy to take requests if you’d like a Chinese notebook for Christmas! 😉